A team of underwater archaeologists are set to excavate a 2,000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Sri Lanka, the oldest known shipwreck in the Indian Ocean.
April Holloway | Ancient Origins
It is hoped that the month-long excavation, due to start in two weeks, will shed new light on trade between Rome and Asia during antiquity.
The wreck was found ten years ago when local fishermen recovered a number of ancient artefacts, including a grinding stone shaped like a small bench or footed table. Since then, a number of exploratory studies have been conducted by Deborah Carlson, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University, and colleagues, including dating of timber fragments from the ship, which revealed that the wreck dates back to at least the 1st century BC.
“I was quite sceptical when I first saw this wreck in 2010. I thought there’s no way this thing is ancient,” Carlson said. “But we took these wood samples and I was kind of floored when we got the results back.”
The wreck contains a concreted mound of corroded metal bars and most of the objects seen around the ship so far look like ancient cargo, including Buddhist-looking grinding stones, metal and glass ingots, and pottery, which have tumbled around on the seafloor for hundreds of years amid strong currents and perhaps even the occasional tsunami.
The sunken ship lies 33 metres below the ocean’s surface off the fishing village of Godavaya, which used to be an important port along the maritime ‘Silk Route’. The route opened up in Chinese-controlled Giao Chỉ (centred in modern Vietnam, near Hanoi) and extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the north-eastern coast of the Red Sea. Scholars believe trade between the East and West intensified after Rome annexed Egypt in the first century BC, gaining access to the Red Sea, a gateway to the Indian Ocean.
Carlson said that it is hoped discoveries at the sunken ship might help illustrate that Sri Lanka was a “linchpin” in this trade, as so many of the goods that passed through the island reached the Mediterranean. The team is also expecting to find a large number of artefacts, which may reveal trade items, and possibly even closed ceramic jars containing ancient botanical materials.